DECONSTRUCTING THE WORLD
DECONSTRUCTING THE SELF
The Human Mind
The Human Being
Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) grew up in prehistoric Iran between the Stone Age and the Bronze Age for that region (c. 1700-1500 BCE). He was a zaotar (or priest) of the Old Iranian religion. He was the only founder of a religion that was a priest to begin with. The old Iranians worshiped the same deities as the ones the Aryans brought to India (Indra, Varuna, etc.). He saw these gods as the cause of pain and destruction in the world and not worth serving. So at thirty, Zoroaster went out alone in the wilderness. While crossing a stream, he had a vision of the one true, uncreated God, Ahura Mazda.
After his experience, Zoroaster became a prophet of Mazda and preached to his people. He taught that Mazda (later known as Ohrmazd) created the world. Mazda’s equal and enemy, Angra Mianyu (or Ahriman), was jealous and attempted to destroy his creation. Mazda won a truce but the battle is still being fought in the world today. The battle is fought daily by all of Mankind. Humans can freely choose to do good or evil. Upholding the will of Mazda is called ‘asha.’ Asha is order in Nature and in Man along with the moral qualities of truth, honesty, loyalty and courage. The opposite of asha is ‘drug’ (evil and immorality). All good deeds (performed by anyone, regardless of caste or gender) help to defeat the enemy. Eventually, Mazda’s forces of good will win the Final Battle led by the ‘Saoshyant’ (or Savior) and the world will be transformed into a paradise.
Zoroastrianism is a monotheism, but there is also a pantheon. Mazda has what might be called avatars, otherwise known as Ahuras (Lords) or Amesha Spentas (Holy Immortals). Mithra was the most renown; others include Apam Napat, Sraosha, Ashi and Geush Urvan. Below the Ahuras, came the Yazatas (or beings worth worship). The Yazatas are angelic beings who aid humans. They represent things (elementals), concepts (truth and justice) and needs (rain and wealth), thus deifying them. Ahriman’s agents are the old Aryan gods and their demons, which Zoroaster saw as destructive and opposed to Mazda’s ethical beings.
In cosmology, Zoroaster was totally revolutionary. Humans were no longer play-things of the gods, but actively involved in the outcome of the Cosmic Struggle. All humans were to care for Mazda’s creation, as well as themselves (morally and physically), and for others. Morality was important because after death, one was ushered into the presence of Mithra for judgment with his Scales of Justice to weigh their moral conduct in life. If they tilt towards good, you are met by maidens and ushered into the realm of the Ahuras (Heaven). If you are shown to be evil, hags take you away to the realm of Ahriman (Hell).
At the end of this time of struggle, there will be a Final Judgment. All humans who have ever lived will be resurrected into their former bodies. They will all have to pass through the River of Truth. The Good will cross into Eternal Paradise while the Evil will be destroyed utterly with Ahriman and all of his minions.
If this cosmology sounds familiar, it should as Zoroastrianism has influenced the other religions which grew up later in the region (such as Atenism, Judaism, Mithraism, Christianity, Manichaenism, Islam and Baha’i, as well as Mahayana Buddhism and Upanishadic Hinduism). Zoroaster originated monotheism, individual judgment, Heaven and Hell, a Final Resurrection for a Final Judgment, everlasting life in Paradise, a Savior figure, alms giving, iconoclasm, linear time (with an End of Time), avatars of the One God, a profession of faith, prayer from three times a day to five times a day, demons and angels, “those who fail to listen are damned,” and the individual is responsible for their own actions.
Zoroaster’s message was not warmly accepted by his tribe. He taught that all were equal in the end and that the gods they were serving were actually demons. He left his tribe for another and was warmly received there. While there, Zoroaster had three wives for political reasons. He also taught the Gathas (hymns taught to him by Mazda) through memory in Avestan (a language which was not written down until 2,000 years later). Zoroaster was finally stabbed to death by a priest of the old religion. Afterwards, the fledgling religion spread throughout Iran, but the missionary zeal ended and the religion became solely Iranian.
Whatever Zoroaster’s intentions were, the old Indo-Iranian religion crept into his new one. The fire worship of the Aryan god Agni became the sanctification of the elemental fire three times a day (dawn, mid-day and dusk). All seven of the elementals of the Seven Day Creation were valued by Zoroastrians: earth, water, fire, stone, plants, animals and humans (respectively). Ahriman polluted Mazda’s creation, and it is the duty of all Zoroastrians to destroy these abominations (deserts, dead bodies, blood, carnivorous animals [except dogs, which were held in high esteem] and toads) and to purify themselves against their taint.
Purification rituals became obsessive. Rites for women’s isolation during their cycle became impossible for them to get anything done. Dead bodies (a strong pollution) could not be allowed to pollute the elementals, so burying it in the sacred earth was out, as well as burning it with sacred fire (which would also pollute the sacred air). The solution was to build ‘dakhmas’ (or open burial pits), so that nature can take its course. Afterwards, the bones were gathered and stored in a mausoleum until the Final Judgment. Also, sacred water was not used for cleaning. Cattle dung was used to wash and then dirt used for drying.
Zoroastrianism also has no temples or shrines. Since God was everywhere, they were unnecessary. A mountain top or wooden glen would serve nicely. Around Zoroaster’s Gathas was added the Avestas, books of religious history and rituals.
The Iranians first empire was founded by the Achaemenians under Cyrus the Great in 549 BCE. Evidence supports that the Achaemenians were Zoroastrian, thus it was spread throughout the Persian Empire (which had conquered Babylon and Egypt). Also during this time, the Zurvan heresy grew. Zurvan was said to be the father of Mazda (who was demoted to a demi-urge) and Ahriman. Zurvan is the master of time, which is not linear, but cyclic. Reincarnation also came into Zoroastrianism at this time. The Zurvan heresy weakened Zoroastrianism’s monotheism in the eyes of later Christians and Muslims. The Achaemenian Persian Empire was destroyed by Alexander the Great, who is called a demon for his sacrilegious putting out of fires and killing priests.
The Pagan Greeks introduced icons and shrines into Zoroastrianism until the Sasanians re-installed a Zoroastrian Orthodoxy (c. 300 BCE), even though the Sasanians were Zurvans. The icons were destroyed and replaced with fire altars. A Prelate evolved (like the Papacy and the Caliphate) to give the Magi (Zoroastrian priests) a strong leadership. Zoroaster’s birth was misinterpreted at this time by Greek historians (as it was confused with Cyrus’ birth).
The Magi were introduced into Christianity in the Gospel of Matthew. Zoroastrianism was widely held throughout Southwest Asia (as Sasanian Persia was a rival to Rome). The Magi were waiting for a Savior, which is different than a Jewish messiah. The Magi story made Jesus not only the Messiah of the Jews, but also the Savoir of the world. Epiphany (the day celebrating the gifts of the Magi) is also the Zoroastrian New Year (January 6).
The Sasanian decline saw the spread of two reformers. The first was Mani (c. 216-276 CE), founder of Manichaeism. Mani preached the same cosmology as Zoroaster, but added the “life is suffering” worldview of Buddha. Mani encouraged his followers to renounce the world and wait for death and paradise. Zoroastrians condemned Mani for this worldview because humans were to value this life and to aid the forces of Good to win the Final Battle. Mani countered this with his belief in Zurvan, saying that the fate of the world is pre-ordained and foretold by Zoroaster, so why bother.
The other reformer was Mazdak (c. 500 CE). Mazdak was a true Zoroastrian but fulfilled the role of Martin Luther. Mazdak saw the excesses of the Sasanian Magi (which was equal to the medieval Catholic Church) and demanded a change. He wanted reform for the treatment of women and social reform for the poor. His message was quite popular. He was finally invited to a banquet given by the shah and murdered.
The Gathas and Avestas were first written down near the end of the Sasanian Empire (c. 400 CE). They had lasted through 2,000 years of memorization in a dead language (now known as Avestan). A Zoroastrian scholar had to create an alphabet for it, which was fortunate because the Islamic invasions might have ended that knowledge forever.
The Sasanian Empire was weak from decay and inner struggles when the Islamic Empire attacked. Under the Muslim Caliphs, Zoroastrians were given ‘dhimmi’ (People of the Book) status due to their large numbers (this was and is still debated, as most Muslims view Zoroastrianism as pagan due to their pagan practices). Oppressed but still strong, Zoroastrianism lasted in Iran until it was absorbed into the Iranian influenced Shi’a Islam.
Shi’a Islam reflects the Iranian culture as much as Sunni Islam reflects the Arab culture. Zoroastrian purity laws and some funerary rites were taken (although not the dakhmas). The Yazatas became the Shi’a saints. The Savior figure became the 12th Imam (for some, the 7th Imam), who disappeared and will return for the Final Judgment. The Imams, themselves, were of royal Sasanian blood, as legend has it that Ali’s son (thus Mohammed’s grandson), Hasan, married Shahrbanu, a Sasanian princess. Later, when the Shi’ites wanted to prove to other Muslims that they were not Zoroastrians under a Muslim guise, they would split into fires and kick dogs (both sacred to Zoroastrians).
The Turks and later the Mongols came next to devastate Iran (as well as all of Asia) militarily and then with new religious fervor (as they converted to Islam). Zoroastrianism was left with tiny pockets of faith in the mountains of northeastern Iran. Some could stand the persecution no longer and left their homeland. The Parses, as they came to be known, migrated to west-central India.
In the modern era, Zoroastrianism has been aided by the West, with men like Martin Haug, who investigated the Avestas using philology and found that the Gathas were much older than expected. Zoroastrianism was also aided by the British takeover of India, as the Parses gained much religious freedom. But, Zoroastrianism has also been hurt by the West. Protestant ethics were also brought by the British and this changed Zoroastrian practices with rationalism, vernacular prayers, feminism and, even, modern conveniences (as no more hearth fires are needed).In Iran, Zoroastrianism was hurt by the Babi and Baha’i Movements (both claiming to be the Saoshyant and taking followers). The Pahlavi Shahs gave the Zoroastrians some relief as they wanted a rebirth of the ancient Persian Empire. For this relief, Zoroastrians gave up the dakhmas (they now use only mausoleums for burial). After the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the fate of the Zoroastrians became as bleak as the other religious minorities in Iran.